“It’s all about the learning. It’s all about the learning. It’s all about the learning. Money will follow, but for now – it’s all about the learning.”
When Rob Harris ’77 G’79 visited Syracuse University in October, he was continuously impressed by the holistic education students receive here. His advice to students throughout the visit – an echo of the advice he always gives when hosting iSchool immersion trips to his Fortune 500 company – was to take this education seriously. To Harris, college is a time to take in any sort of learning before you reach the outside world, and his own Syracuse story perfectly exemplifies this.
Harris completed his undergraduate degree in education in 1977 and continued on to receive his master’s degree in counseling in 1979 – both from the School of Education. During this time at Syracuse, he was constantly chasing new things to learn.
Harris fondly remembers his introductions to intramural swimming, yoga, and squash, a sport he continues to practice today. A brother of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, he reflected on nights working with teams before rival football games planning ways to “orange-ify” the opposing team’s mascot. During a semester abroad in Amsterdam, he learned the true value of culture while hitchhiking through Europe (laughed Harris of his decision to hitchhike in a puffy orange down coat and blue backpack, “I was a sight.”). He was constantly inspired by professors, learning both inside and out of the classroom. Harris took full advantage of his holistic Syracuse education, learning even when he didn’t fully intend to.
“I’d spend full nights studying at Bird Library,” remembered Harris, “and as study breaks I’d imagine and ideate on the creation of businesses. I’d make mock profit and loss documents. It was fun critical thinking.” Harris, all these years later, now is the founder, President and CEO of Pacific Market International (PMI), a global brand marketing and product innovation company focused on food and beverage containers. The company, launched in 1983 with a simple investment of $1,200, quickly took off in a previously untapped subset of manufacturing and design. Headquartered in Seattle, Washington, PMI is now a prominent company in four continents managing brands like Aladdin, Stanley and Migo.
While the Bird Library-formulated companies Harris used to envision never came to fruition, the dreams stuck with him. “One year after my graduate school education, I decided to try my hand at business. Two and a half years later, I started a company that still runs today. It’s both challenging and rewarding,” he said, harkening back to his education, “but at the end of the day it’s simply about helping people.”
While Syracuse did not teach Harris how to explicitly create a profitable business, he attributes the transferable products of a holistic college education – critical thinking, writing, problem solving, and working with others – to his success. Building his business, Harris did not want any debt or partners. He worked through “near-death” money experiences, business quality problems, fast growth and competitors. However, through the hardships, Harris has created a company that, 35 years later, has had 33 years of continuous profitability.
Through his career successes, Harris learned not to rush through life. “Think about your career as a path of learning. Try not to hurry through,” he said. “You’ll learn from those who have been there before you and have done it. Do not focus on the money. Learn.” With these principles, it’s easy to see how Harris has lead his company to be a global award-winning operation.
In regards to the eight countries and 950 employees his business impacts, Harris is infatuated with two words: collaboration and culture. “I’m focused on creating a culture that proves itself to be relevant globally,” he said, naming managing scale as one of the most difficult aspects of running a global company. “Culture is the common thread that brings it all together.”
To current Syracuse students experiencing the collective culture of the University, Harris urges them to try all new experiences during college. “You can’t do ‘later’ all your life,” he kindly reminded students. “You get a job, you get married, you have kids. Life sort of … happens. Don’t do that. Make it happen.”